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HIV vs. AIDS — What's the Difference?
Reviewed by Ruthann Cunningham, MD, June 26, 2017
We often think of HIV/AIDS as one and the same. But while HIV &
AIDS are not the
same. AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency
Syndrome) is a condition that
can develop once a person gets infected with HIV (Human
Immunodeficiency Virus). To clarify, HIV is a virus that can
lead to the medical condition, AIDS. With HIV treatment, the
development of AIDS can be prevented. HIV can be deadly because it weakens the
immune system, leaving a person open to life-threatening infections.
Contrary to what some people may think, not everyone with HIV will
advance to AIDS. AIDS typically only develops in advanced stages of
HIV infection when a person isn’t following their treatment plan or taking their medication. Without treatment, HIV
will progress and develop into AIDS in the majority of cases. This
is why it is important to get tested and identify HIV infection early,
to stop or delay the development of AIDS.
How HIV is spread and early signs
Everyone infected with HIV is capable of passing it to a sexual partner through
anal, genital, and oral sex. It is often passed through
sharing needles, or
from mother to child during development or childbirth.
HIV damages the body by infecting and destroying certain
cells (called CD4 cells) that make up a person's immune system. The
initial signs of HIV infection are vague, and sometimes go
unnoticed. Patients describe feeling like they have the flu and may
experience symptoms such as:
The general nature of these early signs doesn't typically alert
someone that they may be infected with HIV. This highlights the
importance of HIV testing for
anyone who is sexually active. Getting tested is the only way to
know if you have HIV.
When HIV advances to AIDS
Once the acute phase of HIV infection is over, there may be a long,
symptom-free period where an infected person feels "normal" and remains
unaware of their infection. However, if HIV goes untreated, it will
continually damage the body's immune system. Without diagnosis and proper
treatment, a person's immune system will weaken to the point that AIDS
develops. The time frame from HIV infection to development of AIDS varies
from person to person, but usually occurs over a period of years.
AIDS and opportunistic infections
By medical definition, when CD4
levels drop below a level of 200 cells per milliliter of blood,
AIDS has developed. It is not unusual for a person with AIDS
to develop opportunistic infections or diseases that do not normally
occur in people with healthy immune systems.
lymphomas (cancers of the immune
Pneumocystis pneumonia, and
several other bacterial and fungal
When a person with AIDS dies, it is
often due to complications from these opportunistic infections.